July 17, 2016

KOZHIKODE DIARIES - Part 1

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CITY OF SPICES


Situated along the coast of the Arabian in Northern Kerala, the port city of Kozhikode is the 'Pride of Malabar'. Serving as the gateway to the country during the Middle Ages, this city was known to different peoples by different names - Kalikoot (Arabs), Kalifo (Chinese), Kalikottai (Tamils), Kalikottae (Kanndigas) and Calicut (Europeans).

THE ORIGINS

Historians believe that the city was built sometime between the 11th and the 13th centuries by early Samoorthi kings. As per one account, the Udaiyavar (governor) of Ernad, a land locked province of the erstwhile Chera empire fought a war with his coastal neighbor, the Polatri of Polanad to seek an outlet to the coast so that he could build a trading post similar to Tondi, a rich port during the later Sangam period. The war which is believed to have lasted for 48 years ended with the victory for the Ernads and they established their new city near the famous Shiva temple at Tali. Another version says that the land around the city was given by the last Chera ruler Perumal Chera to Mana Vikrama, the governor of Ernad for the services he offered in expelling the Cholas from Kerala.

Whatever be the origin, the newly established town grew to become one of the most busiest ports on the Malabar coast. The Ernad governor who had asserted his independence by then, moved his capital from Neddiyiruppu to Kozhikode and came to be known as the Samoorthi, which was later Europeanized as the 'Zamorin'. In the comming years, the Samoorthis and Kozhikode became synonymous with each other; the revenues generated from the trade here fueled he Samoorthi treasury enabling them to overpower their neighbors.

By the end of the 13th century, Kozhikode was on the contemporary international trade map and the Samoorthis whose prestige had spread far and wide, were the undisputed masters of northern Kerala. For centuries, the fate of Calicut and its Zamorins were intertwined.

THE GOLDEN AGE

During the middle ages, there were two major trading routes in the hitherto 'known' world - the much fabled Silk Route and the lesser known Indian ocean trade route. Though the land based route is more famous, historians of the opinion that maritime trade which covered an area extending from the west coast of Africa to China and Indonesia, far outstretched its former, both in terms of the money involved as well as the quantity of goods traded. Though the origins of Kozhikode may not be clear as yet, what we do know is that by the 14th century, it was one of the most important centres of the Indian Ocean trade.

The chronicles of several famous contemporary travelers including Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta, Chinese sailor Ma Huan, Persian ambassador Abdur Razzak and Italian merchant Nicolo de' Conti paint a beautiful picture of the port city. Their records suggest that spices of the best quality, Calicut's most famous commodity attracted ships from far away lands including Africa, Persia, Arabia and China. Merchants from distant lands, speaking different languages, following different faiths and practicing distant customs settled here, making Kozhikode a melting pot of cultures. In fact, the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He is believed to have died in Calicut in CE 1433.

The liberal attitude and the secular outlook of the Zamorins encouraged people from all over the world to settle herewhich greatly contributed in making the city the premiere port city of the Subcontinent in this period. The revenue generated from the port and the aid provided by the Chinese and Muslim merchants helped the Zamorin overrun much of Malabarbesides subjugating the chiefs of faraway kingdoms like Kochi and Kollam.

THE TRYST WITH EUROPEANS

The landing of Portuguese admiral Vasco da Gama on the west coast of India in May, 1498 is considered an important milestone in world history. In fact, its implication were first felt in Kozhikode as it was at Kappad, 22 km north of the city where da Gama first set foot on Indian soil.

The relations between the Zamorin and the Portuguese were cordial in the initial years. However, soon the two fell apart as the former tried to monopolize the maritime trade at the expense of the Arabs who had long been the Zamorin's trusted allies. All throughout the 16th century, the two sides were often at war with each other; the fightback on the side of Kozhikode was led by the Kunhali Marakkar - the title of the Muslim naval chief of the Samoothris. In CE 1510, the much celebrated Portuguese admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque invaded Calicut and burnt it down. However, the forces of the Zamorin mounted a splendid counter attack and expelled the intruders in spite of considerable losses. Fights and skirmishes of these kinds continued till CE 1580s when the two parties managed to solve most of their conflicts. Soon, the Dutch and the English too joined the bandwagon and arrived here in Nov 1604 and 1615 respectively.

Meanwhile, the sixteenth and the seventh centuries changed the fortunes of Kozhikode forever. The constant wars with the Portuguese and the end of the Arab dominance over the Indian Ocean trade diminished its prestige to some extent but it continued to be amongst the Subcontinent's busiest ports. During the same period, down south, a new port established with support of the Portuguese in CE 1500 began challenging Kozhikode's status as the most important trading center of Kerala. Though the Kings of Kochi were initial vassals of the Zamorin, by mid 17th century, they had asserted their independence and refused to accept the overlordship of the rulers of Calicut.

THE DECLINE

The wars with the Europeans, their monopolizing of the Indian Ocean trade as well as the rise of Cochin as a major port in the region adversely affected the fortunes of Kozhikode and the Zamorins. The major blow though came in CE 1764 when Hyder Ali, the de-facto ruler of Mysuru invaded city as his modern army overran Malabar. Unable to bear the humiliation of this defeat, the Zamorin committed suicide by locking himself in his palace on the banks of the Mananchira and setting it on fire.

The Mysuru occupation continued till CE 1791 during which a sustained guerilla campaign mounted by crown prince Krishna Varma and his cousin Ravi Varma devastated all attempts of Hyder Ali and later, his son and successor Tipu Sultan to subjugate Malabar. Unfortunately, the end of the Mysuru threat brought little joy for the Zamorins, as the British entered the scene. By CE 1799 when the English had killed Tipu Sultan, the last of the major kingdoms to pose a challenge for British supremacy in lower Deccan, the Zamorin was reduced to a petty pensioner of the Company. Malabar became a district under the British with Kozhikode serving as its capital.

THE REVIVAL

After seeing off a rebellion led by Krishna Varma, the crown prince of the erstwhile Zamorin kingdom, the entire Malabar region came under the rule of the East India Company. In spite of the numerous Mappila revolts that continued till 1920s, Kozhikode continued to be firmly held by the British. Post independence, as Malayalam dominant areas were merged into a single state, the once famous port city was made a part of Kerala.

Though the city may have lost some of its former glory, the busy by lanes of the Big Bazaar road, lined with shops selling spices, dry fruits and other commodities are reminiscent of a time when Calicut was one of the busiest ports of the Indian Ocean trade. The mosques that are heavily influenced by local Malyali architecture and Churches built during the colonial era are testimony to the Kozhikode's secular outlook, a tradition that it has held on to, long after the end of the Zamorin kings. Once the 'Gateway to India', Calicut continues to remain one of the most beautiful and colorful cities of the country, still attracting visitors from far and wide.